Sam Howell making strong case to be Commanders' future at QB

Coach Ron Rivera believes Sam Howell is the long-awaited franchise QB in Washington. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

FOXBOUROUGH, Mass. -- The day after the Washington Commanders traded two of their top young talents last week, coach Ron Rivera at times steered the conversation toward a cheerier topic: his even younger quarterback. Rivera wanted to point to the future, focusing on Sam Howell.

After another strong game Sunday -- he threw for 325 yards and a touchdown in Washington's 20-17 win at New England -- it's not just Rivera preaching belief in Howell.

"Sam Howell is our leader," defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. "We found our next quarterback for five, 10 years. I truly believe that. ... I've seen a lot of great quarterbacks in my time, played against a lot of them. He has the potential to be one of them."

Washington's quest to find The Next quarterback has lasted decades. Howell is the 33rd player to start at quarterback since the franchise last won the Super Bowl, after the 1991 season. Since Kirk Cousins last played here in 2017, Washington has started 12 quarterbacks.

It's not a high bar to step over, but Howell, in his second season, certainly hopes he can be the franchise's long-term answer.

"I want to be the quarterback here for a really long time," Howell said. "But how I'm going to get to that point is taking it one day at a time. That's the way I look at it. I never worry about the future."

The future can be difficult to predict in Washington. With a new owner in Josh Harris, nothing is guaranteed for the coaching staff, or football operations staff, beyond this season. And that could impact Howell's future as well.

But the more good games he plays, the more he can cement himself in Washington. Howell has started only 10 games in Washington; the Commanders are 4-5 heading into Sunday's game at the Seattle Seahawks (5-3). There's a long way to go.

"It takes time," before any declaration can be made, Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said.

But Howell has injected hope that perhaps he, indeed, can be the answer. In the last five games, Howell has topped 300 yards three times. He has an NFL-high 1,510 passing yards during that stretch, while tying Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts for the most touchdowns with 10. Howell also became the first quarterback in franchise history to surpass 2,500 yards in only 10 games.

A week ago, Howell threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to Philadelphia.

"We feel we have a quarterback," Rivera said Wednesday. "This franchise has been looking for quite some time and for the first time in a while, I think that that guy might be here."

One reason they traded defensive end Montez Sweat to the Chicago Bears for a second-round pick stemmed from a "paradigm shift" as Rivera said. They also sent defensive end Chase Young to the San Francisco 49ers for a third-round pick, wanting to move on from him, a source said, but also not wanting to pay big money to keep him around. Both players were pending free agents; Sweat signed an extension with Chicago on Saturday.

Rather than invest at one position -- defensive line, where they already signed tackles Daron Payne and Allen to lucrative long-term deals -- they want to spread it around. They also want to build stronger protection for Howell.

Because he's on a rookie deal for the next two seasons, it's an opportunity to invest in building a more complete roster.

"It's going to give us an opportunity to continue to build for the future and do things a little differently," Rivera said. "There may be a little bit of a shift in how we're going to construct things."

But a big key to that shift remains Howell.

Sunday, he made plays with his arm, lofting a perfectly placed 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jahan Dotson down the middle. The Patriots tried to fool him with a delayed blitz, but it didn't matter. He received good protection and threw the pass as calmly as if he was tossing a wad of paper into a trash can.

Howell made plays with his legs, scrambling away from a blitz pressure and then throwing back to the other side of the field to a wide-open Byron Pringle, who turned it into a 26-yard gain.

In the last two weeks Howell has attempted a combined 15 passes of 20 yards or more downfield, a byproduct of feeling comfortable again in the pocket with improved protection -- and of not letting the league-leading 44 sacks he's taken impact him. He had averaged 3.5 such throws in his first seven games when he was sacked a combined 40 times.

"You've got guys getting open down the field and he does a great job of keeping his eyes down the field," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "That's one of the better attributes he's developed over the course of the season."

Howell also ran 24 yards on a third-and-23 to pick up a first down late in the first half. Though he called his interception five plays later "one of the worst plays in my career." The Patriots had five players defending two Commanders in the end zone, making it a poor decision.

Rivera has mentioned that determining whether Howell can be the solution is a big part of this season. The organization wants to find out if what they're seeing now can last a while. The more they see, the more they can learn and know for sure.

Howell has had tougher games, too.

"With how he's progressing, we're seeing some really good things," Leno said. "You've got to be consistent and put it on tape every week. That's what it comes down to. You have to have a lot of games under your belt; you have to have different looks, different schemes, different defenses to go against. That takes time."

But Leno says Howell has a chance to become the guy; not because of his physical traits but rather his demeanor. Despite the 44 sacks, Howell hasn't flinched and doesn't complain. Nor has it altered his game.

"I always bring up the calm, the ability to compartmentalize," Leno said. "He'll have one bad play, come back with two great strikes. He'll have a great strike and come back with another one. No high is too high, no low is too low for him. That's everything when it comes to quarterback play."

Indeed, after the interception Rivera said he briefly spoke to Howell in the locker room. Backup Jacoby Brissett was with Howell as well, offering words of encouragement.

"I went over and said something quickly," Rivera said, "and then he had a little grin on his face so I knew he was going to get over it quickly."

On Washington's first possession after halftime Howell led a touchdown drive, capped by his pass to Dotson.

"He's resilient," Rivera said.

He's also not easily impressed.

"I thought it was all right," Howell said of his day. "I did some good things, made some good plays. I've just got to find a way to play better at certain times."

Howell still takes a lot of hits; he was sacked three more times Sunday even though Washington's protection held up well vs. a variety of stunts and delayed blitzes. On one of those, Howell was drilled as he unloaded a deep out to McLaurin for a 26-yard gain -- throwing to an open spot and letting him run under the ball.

"You can tell he's getting more comfortable in this offense," McLaurin said, "getting more comfortable with the looks he's getting and you can tell he's being decisive. It's really good to see at this point in the season."

The question then becomes: How will it look at the end of the season? And will Howell leave no doubt about whether he should be the future?